Category: News

Scotland: A Legacy of Cultural Achievement

After two years of planning, the Decorative Arts Trust launched our most ambitious Study Trip Abroad to date. All told nearly eighty members filled three back-to-back excursions to Scotland, a tour appropriately titled “A Legacy of Cultural Achievement.” The itinerary touched on the numerous highlights of Scotland’s rich history as well as the craftsmen and artistic influences that made their way to America.

Beginning in Edinburgh, participants enjoyed a walking tour designed to explore the contrasts between the city’s medieval Old Town and the Enlightenment-era New Town. Laid out in 1767 by a 28-year-old James Craig, the New Town also introduced the group to the architectural sensibilities of Robert Adam, who established the neoclassical idiom there with the construction of the Register Building. City regulations mandated highly finished facades intended to draw fashion-conscious residents across to the more spacious and sanitary portion of the city. These exteriors were a stark contrast to the irregular appearance of the low-cost free stone used throughout the Old Town.

Outside the Edinburgh city limits, we toured numerous country houses connected to the Adam family of architects, including the patriarch William and his sons John, James, and Robert. William was an entrepreneur extraordinaire and supplied building materials for his projects from his own quarries. His exuberant Baroque and Palladian houses and interiors were de rigeur, often featuring plasterwork by master stuccador Thomas Clayton and woodwork from carver and gilder William Strachan. Participants were treated to excellent examples of William’s oeuvre at Arniston and The Drum, both private houses. It was not unusual for one of William’s sons to later complete his father’s designs or modify them to suit later fashions, as in the case of Arniston.

The participation of Scottish decorative arts scholars enhanced our study of the material on view. Stephen Jackson and Godfrey Evans shared the exceptional collection of the Scottish National Museum. Our members gained immensely from the guidance of furniture historian David Jones, who provided in-depth connoisseurship lessons on Scottish cabinetmakers, ensuring that we could distinguish the work of Edinburgh wrights Alexander Peter and William Trotter. David’s gracious instruction enhanced the visits to many of the public and private collections visited, including Dumfries House, Mellerstain, Hopetoun House, Culzean Castle, and Traquair.

Trust members also received a good dose of Scottish history, learning about the clans and their strife that dominated the country’s struggles between the 13th and 16th centuries. Despite generations of political turmoil, Scottish intelligentsia became profoundly influential in Western thought and civilization through the Scottish Reformation and Enlightenment. Edinburgh was known as the Athens of the North and served as a leading center for economic, political, and medical discourse and education.

The connections with America abounded. Participants on our third tour visited Paxton House, furnished by Thomas Chippendale in the “neat and plain” style of furniture preferred by George Washington and his Chesapeake contemporaries. The groups also saw the parallels between the work of Edinburgh cabinetmakers and the furniture of craftsmen such as Robert Walker and Thomas Affleck who emigrated from Scotland to Virginia and Pennsylvania, respectively.  Scotland’s central role in the transmission of style to the American colonies was clear, with both countries establishing a cultural and aesthetic identity distinct from English patterns.

The preservation of historic sites and objects defines Scotland’s strong sense of national pride. At Traquair, Scotland’s oldest continuously occupied house, the family now proudly displays items relating to their support of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Jacobite Cause, and their Catholic faith, which was outlawed under sanctions from the government until emancipation in 1829. At Abbotsford, historic curiosities collected by Sir Walter Scott were tied to major figures and events from Scottish history, including William Wallace and the Battle of Culloden. At Bowhill, a house greatly expanded throughout the 19th century, we encountered the Duke of Buccleuch’s new initiatives in the conservation of original wall treatments, not to mention the world-class painting collection of this important Scottish country house. Today, the quest to preserve Scottish heritage in a sustainable manner is resulting in diverse approaches to public sites, such as the Scottish National Trust’s efforts at Newhailes, private charities that preserve family homes such as Hopetoun, and many homes and collections that remain in private hands, such as Balcarres House.

Thanks to the hard and diligent work of our staff, representatives of the Board of Governors, and our colleagues at Specialtours, the three back-to-back study trips (separated by two Highland extensions nonetheless) were our most popular trips to date. Not wishing to rest on our laurels, however, preparations are in full swing for subsequent adventures in Venice and the Veneto in October 2017, Sweden and Denmark in May and June 2018, and Prague and Vienna in October 2018. We are most grateful for the continued enthusiasm and support of the members who attend these wonderful Study Trips Abroad!

Help Fairfax House ‘Save the King’

While Fairfax House in York, England is best known for elaborately decorated interiors exemplary of 18th -century English design, the institutional mission focuses on York architecture and decor from a broader period. The opportunity to acquire the King David Panel, a high-relief sculpture completed by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1720) in York during the late 17th century will dramatically enhance this effort. The panel is currently up for sale at auction and, if purchased by an international buyer, at risk of leaving England. Thus, Fairfax House has launched a ‘Save the King’ campaign to keep the King David Panel in York.

Intimately scaled, the King David Panel is an interpretation of Peter Candid’s painting, The Performance of a Motet of Orlando di Lasso (1589-1583), which similarly illustrates a concert directed by the biblical King David. The panel depicts episodes related to Psalms 148 and 150, with King David carved at the center of the composition and was likely commissioned by a member of the Barwick family of Yorkshire. The king composes music with his harp as cherubs listen closely and angels in the clouds join him in concert, most notably Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, who is shown playing her cello. The complex and detailed carving of this limewood panel showcase Gibbons’ exquisite ability to manipulate wood.

The ‘Michelangelo of Wood’, ‘Britain’s Bernini’, and the ‘King’s Carver’ are just a few names that have been assigned to Gibbons. His woodcarvings can be found in situ in England’s grandest 17th-century country houses as well as Museum collections in the UK and abroad. Gibbons soared to success in the late 17th century under the patronage of the English the royal family. He then went on to create pieces for St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and Kensington Palace among other renowned establishments.

Information on Gibbons’ early life and career, however, is surprisingly scarce. This is why the King David Panel, which is Gibbons earliest and only surviving York-made piece, is important to English cultural heritage and for future research on the artist. The magnificent panel demonstrates his promising talent for woodworking at the beginning of his fruitful career. Even today Gibbons’ lasting impact on the interior design of English country homes is visible. Traces of his influence can be linked through the work of later craftsman such as the widely successful cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale (1718-1779) who was inspired by Gibbons and also worked in York for a brief time.

The Decorative Arts Trust fully supports Fairfax House’s efforts to keep this panel in York. Our organizations have long been intertwined from curatorial internship placements to study trip abroad tours, and we wish Fairfax House a hearty success in the final push of their fundraising efforts. To date, they have been enormously successful with their ‘Save the King’ campaign and they have raised over £290,000 thanks to the generous support from the HLF Art Fund, V&A Purchase Fund, public campaigning, and other various donors. They are within £10,000 of their final goal. If you wish to contribute to this important campaign and aid Fairfax House in securing Gibbons’ panel you can do so through an online donation by following this link. Participants in the Chippendale Tercentenary Tour next spring will enjoy the opportunity to see the panel up close in York.

Savannah: More than Meets the Eye

Founded in 1733 by British general and social reformer James Oglethorpe, the city of Savannah has remained an important center of commerce and culture ever since. Although it has long outgrown the original boundaries of Oglethorpe’s utopian grid plan, the city’s gorgeous historic center boasts an incredible array of historic structures. For those willing to delve a little deeper, Savannah readily offers up breath-taking collections, which contain fascinating histories amassed over nearly three centuries. For participants in the Trust’s Spring 2017 Symposium, Savannah was truly a city where there is more than meets the eye.

Our program opened with a wonderful lecture by Dale Couch, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Georgia Museum of Art, during which he pointed out that Georgia, and Savannah in particular, has always been current with the latest prevailing trends in style and taste. While many rich Savannah families imported household furnishings from northern manufactories or Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, Georgia-made items possess a unique grace and style. Dale’s observations about a local taste for the trendy were fully borne out during the opening reception at the Green-Meldrim House. Built between 1853 and 1861, the lavishly detailed dwelling is one of the finest examples of Gothic-Revival architecture in the South. During the Civil War, Charles Green lent the house to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman for use as his headquarters. The Green family eventually left Savannah, but, in a stunning turn of events, much of their original furniture was recently discovered in the possession of descendants living in Paris and has returned to Savannah. During the reception, members enjoyed a brand new exhibit featuring highlights of the Green family furniture, curated by Tania Sammons, one of our speakers and a key figure on our symposium planning team.

Our Friday schedule covered some of the oldest sites and earliest history of Savannah. Lecturers discussed a range of topics from Robin Williams’ exceptional talk on the development of the city’s urban plan to Jamie Credle’s introduction to the 20th-century preservation efforts started by a band of community-minded women. After lunch at the Olde Pink House, one of the city’s few surviving 18th-century structures, we enjoyed tours of three noteworthy sites. The John Berrien House, built by the Revolutionary War hero John Berrien in 1791, not only survived a devastating city-wide fire in 1820 but also managed to keep many of its original surfaces hidden away within the walls. Preservation architect David Kelley and historian Maryellen Higgenbotham discovered incredibly rare samples of original wallpaper dating back to the house’s earliest years. Just down the street, the Isaiah Davenport House tells a parallel story, interpreting the life of its namesake, a carpenter and joiner who built many fashionable structures throughout Savannah in the early 19th century, including his own showcase house. The Davenport house was the first success of the city’s preservation movement, which formalized under the auspices of the  Historic Savannah Foundation. In the six decades since, the wildly successful organization has gone on to save hundreds of buildings throughout the city. Our final stop was the fabulous Owens-Thomas House, built 1816-1819 by the fashionable young English architect William Jay in the latest Regency style. The house is one of three sites run by the Telfair Museums and exhibits graceful 19th-century furniture in a beautifully restored interior. The legendary Southern hospitality evident throughout the house extended into the rear garden, where participants enjoyed the chance to rest their feet and relish a scoop (or two!) of Savannah’s famous Leopold’s ice cream.

Saturday turned our focus to Savannah’s architectural heyday during the mid-19th century, when wealthy families commissioned the grand Victorian mansions that became a fixture of the city’s image. Sometimes the figures associated with the buildings rise above their local roles. The Andrew Low house, for instance, was the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, and is now a pilgrimage site for girls in green sashes as well as the history-minded visitors who appreciate the sterling collection on view there. No visit to Savannah would be complete, however, without a visit to the Mercer House. Construction for the family of General Hugh Mercer was interrupted by the Civil War, which prevented any member of the family from ever living there. After a century of various owners, the house experienced a golden age during the 1970s, when it was restored by preservationist and antiquarian Jim Williams. Both the house and Williams sprang to national prominence upon the publication of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994, and the release of the feature film three years later. However, the house tells a larger story of the city and the development of the American antiques trade, as Williams was a collector, dealer, and decorative arts scholar in his own right. Much of his collection remains in the house today, and we were greeted by Williams’s sister, Dr. Dorothy Williams Kingery, the current owner. Our final stop was across the street at the home and gallery of local artist Morgan Kuhn. Her loving restoration of a Monterey Square townhouse, which had long been subdivided into apartments, not only returned a fine historic structure to its original glory but exhibits Savannahians’ unabated emphasis on historic preservation.

Our symposium concluded with four compelling lectures on Sunday morning. Rita and Daniel Elliott of the LAMAR Institute related their findings on regional pottery, with a particular focus on Purysburg, SC, just across the border. Historian Kathleen Staples examined the history behind a family quilt long thought to depict a scene from the Civil War but actually dating from the American Revolution. Jenny Garwood of MESDA discussed samplers made by two Low Country girls, Mary Smallwood and Sarah Jones, which featured the Ten Commandments. Our closing lecture by Shannon Browning-Mulliss, Curator of History and Decorative Arts at the Telfair Museum, closed with an important reminder of the importance of using the decorative arts to tell stories of the forgotten figures of history, in this case the enslaved Driver Morris, who received an engraved silver cup from his master in recognition of his bravery during a disastrous storm.

For the Trust, this symposium was a fresh look at a city well known to many. Thanks to the gracious help of local Trust member, and the newest addition to our Board of Governors, Mary Raines, Tania Sammons, and our wonderful hosts and speakers, we enjoyed unprecedented access to the delights of the city, some well known and others known only to locals, complemented by Savannah’s legendary hospitality. We look forward to more adventures in the second half of the year, particularly our 40th anniversary celebration in conjunction with the Fall Symposium in Hartford!

New Faces at the Trust

The Trust expanded in all sorts of ways last year, from membership numbers and participation to scholarships and grants awarded through the Emerging Scholars Program. To help keep up with the growth, the staff has increased as well. Matt and Christian are thrilled to report that Cynthia Heider and Grace Fitts joined the office staff in January and have already made the work load exponentially easier.

Cynthia Heider
Cynthia Heider

Cynthia will be taking over many of Christian’s duties as the new Membership Coordinator as he transitions to Programming & Communications Coordinator. A longtime resident of Baltimore, Cynthia is currently pursuing an M.A. in history with a concentration in public history at Temple University in Philadelphia. She received her B.A. in history from Goucher College in Baltimore, where she spent a semester studying abroad in Berlin and Tübingen, Germany. At Temple, she focuses on urban life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and thus is naturally partial to the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts Movements within the decorative arts. A committed bibliophile, she worked at the Maryland State Archives and the Towson University Special Collections and Archives before coming to the Trust. As a new resident of Philadelphia, she enjoys exploring the city’s culinary and cultural offerings with her husband, Peter, and discovering the city’s 19th-century landscape and architectural remnants.

Grace Fitts

Grace is interning in Philadelphia through May, splitting her time between the Trust and the American decorative arts department at Freeman’s Auction. She is a senior at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where she majors in Art History. Most of her studies have focused on fine art, but a project for her class “Art of the American South” piqued her interest in the decorative arts. Grace chose to research a cellaret found in Demopolis, Alabama, made by the enslaved craftsman Peter Lee, and loved every minute of the challenging project. Trust member and appraiser Molly Snow, a fellow resident of Tuscaloosa, introduced her to the field of object and estate appraisals, an intriguing career option for Grace. Molly brought her along to an Foundation for Appraisal Education symposium at Freeman’s last fall, introduced her to Matt, and an internship opportunity was created! After graduation in May, Grace plans to pursue a career in private property appraisal thanks to Molly’s encouragement, Matt’s support, and the combined experiences of her internships. Outside of her busy work schedule, Grace maintains a fondness for reading, macaroons, and cheering for the Crimson Tide. Philadelphia is her first taste of life in a big city, and she looks forward to exploring the historic sites, great museums, and all the restaurants it has to offer.

We’re truly excited to welcome Cynthia and Grace to the Trust. They enjoyed the opportunity to meet those attending the New York Antiques Weekend and Emerging Scholars Colloquium last month and look forward to meeting additional members of the Trust! Matt and Christian are deeply appreciative of the extra assistance–and the new-found ability to focus on new programs that their presence permits!

A “Thank You” to Randy Schrimsher

randy-germany-5Randy Schrimsher and his wife, Kelly, have been fixtures at Decorative Arts Trust events for many years, even going to a Trust symposium in Houston as a date before they were married! As President of the Board of Governors, Randy has served as the face of the Trust for the past 6 years while working as the primary mover and shaker behind the scenes. On December 31st, Randy’s term will come to an end. The Trust owes him a great debt of gratitude for his years of enthusiastic participation, support, and service, which will thankfully continue under the the new title of President Emeritus.  As Matt and Christian have settled in to work at the Trust, they have both come to appreciate his insights, advice, and sense of humor through all the various adventures—both on the road and in the boardroom—that come with the job.

Randy’s involvement has been invaluable to the Trust, not only during times of change like the handover of the directorship from Penny Hunt to Matt, but also during a period of unprecedented growth and expansion of the Trust’s outreach and influence. His summation of his time with the Trust is, perhaps, overly modest: “I can never give back to the Trust what I’ve gotten out of it, from the curators to the collectors to the people that just have interest, it’s all been a fabulous experience.”

While he may not boast about himself, we think he has done a phenomenal job. Thank you for your many years of wonderful service and stewardship, Randy, and here’s to many more!

2016 in Review

Throughout 2016, the Decorative Arts Trust’s programs followed one after another in dizzying succession. With more events than ever before, including sold-out domestic symposia and fully subscribed Study Trips Abroad, this has been the busiest year on record, and one packed with wonderful memories.

Our Spring Symposium to Winston-Salem brought the Trust “home,” thanks to the many friends who live in the area and work in the local institutions. Full-access, in-depth tours of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts’s reinstalled collections showcased phenomenal objects in new settings. In contrast, many of the city’s museums and cultural organizations occupy 20th-century mansions built by notable families, such as the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, where a stunning collection of paintings complement interiors and furnishings from the 1910s and 20s.

Winchester and the surrounding counties welcomed participants of our Fall Symposium to the breathtaking landscapes of the Shenandoah and Potomac River valleys to explore some of the region’s earliest homes and most important collections. Many of these sites belonged to the friends and families of our country’s founding fathers, and the objects found there showed how the area’s material culture reflects immigration and trade routes extending from Europe and the urban centers of the East Coast.

On the international front, the Spring Study Trip Abroad brought two back-to-back tours to Poland, a country rarely visited by American cultural organizations. From the medieval frescoes of the 13th-century Church of Saint Jacob in Małujowice to the painstakingly reconstructed historic center of Warsaw, the country yielded rich decorative and architectural treasures spanning the country’s long, eventful, and often tragic history.

Our two fall tours, titled Yorkshire in the Age of Chippendale, took Trust participants through some of the greatest country house collections in England. Led by Trust Governor Brock Jobe, we saw more than two-thirds of the known documented Thomas Chippendale furniture in existence. Many of the houses possessed family collections dating back to earlier centuries as well, not to mention fabulous paintings, sculpture, and other decorative arts!

Our calendar was complemented by a flurry of curator-led tours for members, including visits to the Rhode Island furniture show at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Nadelman folk art collection at the New-York Historical Society, and exhibits at Winterthur and the Peabody Essex Museum. As part of our commitment to new and accessible member programming, we also hosted our second special one-day symposium in conjunction with the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Latrobe and Philadelphia: The Waln House Furniture Revealed and Reconsidered”.

Our phenomenally successful year could not have happened without the enthusiastic participation and support of our members, whose dedication to our mission makes work meaningful for Matt and Christian. 2017 will be an equally exciting year, particularly as we introduce new staff members and more programming to the Trust. Stay tuned!

Meet the Trust: Jeff and Beverley Evans

Enthusiasts of American decorative arts, particularly anything with a Southern provenance, are likely familiar with the firm Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. Proprietors Jeff and Beverley Evans, members of the Trust for several years now, will host participants for the Sunday Optional Tour at the conclusion of this month’s Fall Symposium in Winchester.

Jeff and Beverley’s background, along with that of their firm, is a fascinating story. The business was started by Jeff’s parents as a weekly family-run auction out of their barn. In the late 1960s and 70s, it was entirely local and somewhat eclectic. In fact, Jeff remembers the first half-hour or so of every auction being dedicated entirely to local produce. After taking over the business, then called Green Valley Auctions, in 1979, Jeff gradually fell into the antiques trade. Much of his early work came from liquidating estates, including the contents of the house and barn. Jeff realized that many of the items he was handling had been made locally and stayed in the same general area for generations. The provenance so desired by antiques collectors was there.

Jeff educated himself about the region’s decorative arts: both glass (an interest he credits to his mother’s collection of Dakota-pattern glassware) and furniture. He began buying lots of bottomed-out chairs at other local auctions, which had typically lived in barns for several decades, and tagging them with labels as to where he had acquired them. Once his sample size was large enough, he was able to separate the chairs by type and geography, which helped him identify the cabinet- or chairmaker.

Decorated Yellow Pine Hanging Cupboard, Circa 1800. This cabinet's sale for $962,500 in 2004 set a world record for a piece of American painted furniture.
Decorated Yellow Pine Hanging Cupboard, Circa 1800. This cabinet’s sale for $962,500 in 2004 set a world record for a piece of American painted furniture.

Along with his high-school sweetheart Beverley, whom he married in 1981, Jeff debuted the firm’s first catalog auction, a large glass collection from Wisconsin, in 1995. The catalog auction component blossomed, and Evans & Associates are now known around the country for the handling of major collections of glass and southern decorative art. A particular highlight for Jeff was the 2004 auction of a painted hanging cupboard by Johannes Spitler, which fetched a record price for an example of American painted furniture at $962,500.

In 2009, the catalog portion of the family firm became too big for the shared auction space, and so Jeff and his brother Greg divided the business. The stag on the door of the Spitler Chest became the logo for the new Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates. Although running an auction house is more than a full-time job, both Jeff and Beverley have found time for numerous side projects, including lecturing and guest curating exhibitions at the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Historical Society, the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, and the Virginia Quilt Museum.

The Trust will be visiting the Evanses at perhaps their biggest project, their homestead at the historic Christian Sites House in Broadway, Virginia. Jeff and Beverley purchased the property in 1987 with the full realization that the restoration would be a tall order. The house had been abandoned in 1954, and on their first tour of the property they were surprised to find the living room full of sheep, who were not amused at this sudden invasion of their hiding space.

Jeff and Beverly's circa 1800 stone house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.
Jeff and Beverly’s circa 1800 stone house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979.

Although they both worked on the house, Beverley was the true visionary, and oversaw the renovation, which included repairs to the roof, and a sympathetic wood-frame addition to accommodate a modern kitchen and the master bathroom. As much as possible, Beverley directed that original material and surfaces be left undisturbed. The paint in the front portion of the house is either original to the early 19th century or from a subsequent spruce-up in the early 1900s. Upstairs, the plaster walls showcase original whitewash. The sensitive renovation caught the attention of the preservation community, which had long worried the house was destined for demolition. In 1997, Beverley received two awards for her efforts: the Frederick Doveton Nichols Award from the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, and the Great American Home Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Today, the Sites House serves as a home for Jeff and Beverley (as well as their family of active and photogenic black cats), features their personal collection, and preserves part of the architectural and material legacy of the Shenandoah Valley they both love. We’re excited, and grateful, for the opportunity to visit them later this month!

Winston-Salem and the North Carolina Piedmont

Winston-Salem and the surrounding Piedmont hold many attractions for lovers of the decorative arts: stellar collections at regional museums, the annual High Point Furniture Market, and a wealth of history dating back to before the American Revolution. For many Trust members, this symposium was a chance to revisit favorite institutions, such as the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts or the Reynolda House Museum of American Art. For others, it was their introduction both these museums and to the region. For Matt and Christian, it felt a bit like coming home, thanks to the many dear friends who work in the area. The beautiful spring foliage, wonderful barbecue, and generous helpings of the area’s fabled Southern hospitality added up to a wonderful experience.

The symposium kicked off with an opening reception in MESDA’s museum center. In addition to catching up with old friends and making new ones, members had a chance to walk through the museum’s newest galleries, both, named for MESDA benefactors who are also Trust members: the Carolyn and Mike McNamara Southern Masterworks Gallery, and the William C. and Susan S. Mariner Southern Ceramics Gallery. These self-guided galleries are one new aspect of MESDA’s evolving interpretation and education strategy, which was one of many accomplishments outlined by Old Salem Vice President of Collections and Research, and Trust Governor, Robert Leath during his opening lecture, 50 Years of MESDA. A further surprise awaited participants after the lecture: as a special thank you gift, Matt had commissioned a run of commemorative mugs from Brenda Hornsby Heindl, head of the ceramics department at Jeffrey S. Evans & Associates, and who also runs Liberty Stoneware (link), a pottery studio specializing in historically-inspired designs.

Friday brought the focus of the Trust to the 20th century, an era of incredible industrial growth and prosperity in Winston-Salem. Our base of operations was the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, a stellar institution operating out of the former home of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds and his wife Katherine. As pointed out by architectural historian Peggy Smith in the day’s opening lecture, Reynolda was the first of many grand country and suburban houses built in the Winston-Salem area for wealthy residents. The Reynolds were the first to employ Philadelphia-based architect Charles Barton Keene, who became the fashionable choice for those building new homes in Winston-Salem and Greensboro. R.J. and Katherine’s granddaughter, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, who grew up in the house, spoke of the recent restoration of the interiors to their 1917 appearance, a lengthy process of discovery, as the early decades of twentieth century design and interior decoration have not received much scholarly attention. As with many museums, the growth and development of the collection is a history in its own right, and curator Allison Slaby’s lecture on envisioning the house as a premier museum of American Art spoke as much about the developing appreciation for that field as it did the history of the collection.

A particular treat of Trust symposia is the ability to visit the sites described in the lectures, and Friday’s afternoon visits did not disappoint. A quartet of houses from the first half of the twentieth century, including Reynolda, graciously welcomed members over the course of the afternoon. Graylyn, built by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company president Bowman Gray, Sr., is now a conference center operated by the nearby Wake Forest University. The Trust was hosted for lunch in the Atlantis Room—the center’s (covered) indoor pool, featuring bright ceramic tiles and a decorated with exuberant undersea murals. Lyons Gray, grandson of Bowman Gray, and his wife Connie gave remarks during lunch on the history of the house and their family. Like many large houses, the four seen by the Trust have changed with the times, and been adapted for different uses. Of the four, the Ralph and Dewitt Hanes house still serves as a home, albeit an official one. Since the 1980s, it served as the President’s House for Wake Forest University. The garden, by designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, was in full bloom and a great favorite with the participants. Across a small lake is the house built by Ralph’s brother James, and which today serves as the entryway for the galleries of the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

Saturday once again brought us back to the bosom of MESDA and Old Salem. The morning’s lectures hit the major highlights of the institution, from an introduction to the Moravian aesthetic by Johanna Brown, to overviews of Piedmont furniture, southern metalwork, and southern ceramics by June Lucas, Gary Albert, and Rob Hunter, respectively. That afternoon, MESDA staff truly rolled out the red carpet for the Trust with a series of in-depth, behind the scenes tours. Organizing a group of more than 100 into three separate sessions of small groups did cause Christian some minor heartburn, but he decided it was worth it after tagging along on the tours. The small group size, the expertise of the leaders, and the “behind the scenes” information made these definitely more special than the average gallery walk.

All good things must come to an end, but what better way to end a Trust symposium than a fantastic showing by emerging scholars? Sunday’s lectures were dedicated to MESDA’s Summer Institute, spearheaded for thirty years by Sally Gant. In addition to the fieldwork undertaken for the MESDA research center, the Summer Institute has served as an important training ground for generations of curators and museum professionals. We had the opportunity to hear from three summer institute alumnae: Amber Clawson of Historical Association of Catawba County, Brenda Hornsby Hiendl, and April Strader-Bullin, now working at MESDA. In addition to uncovering new information about the material life and history in the American South, each of these projects helped set them on their professional trajectory. Daniel Ackermann, MESDA’s associate curator, closed the festivities with a preview of what the institution hopes to do with its next fifty years.

To say a good time was had by all would be a massive understatement. It was a pleasure for Matt and Christian to bring so many people to such an array of wonderful institutions in the heart of North Carolina. We hope to see just as many enthusiastic participants at our future symposia in Winchester, Savannah, and Hartford,  as well as study trips to Yorkshire, Scotland, and Venice!

A New Website for the Trust!

Although spring is programming season at the Trust (at one point by our count we were juggling plans for 11 different events), there has been a lot going on behind the scenes. Over Mother’s Day weekend, the result of several months of planning and design was unveiled: our new website! We couldn’t be more excited with the results.

Although Matt and Christian like to think they’re quite talented, they’re not programmers nor designers. For those services, we turned to two professionals who have been helping with the Trust’s branding and online presence since before either of us ever had the Trust on our radars. Veronica Miller and Julee Gooding met because of their work for the Trust, and have gone on to become a dream team for digital projects.

A screenshot of the Trust's very first webpage, late 2001. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive
A screenshot of the Trust’s very first webpage, late 2001. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive

Veronica has been working for the Trust and its “look” since 1992. A native of Venezuela, she graduated from RISD, and worked with former Trust director Penny Hunt at the advertising agency Tyson and Partners before Penny left for the Trust. In addition to redesigning the print newsletters and symposia and Study Trip Abroad brochures, Veronica worked on the very first Trust website, an informational page about the Trust’s mission and activities.

Julee, a Winterthur alumna incidentally, came to the Trust through a more circuitous route. After raising her children, she was looking for a new professional direction. The pivotal moment came when her husband, a programmer, showed her an early version of the Vatican museum website. The potential of online exhibits struck her fancy, and she decided to learn how to make them possible. In addition to classes at Drexel University, she taught herself many of the more complicated ins and outs of programming. “I’ve always been sort of nerdy that way,” she likes to say.

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Julee and Veronica turned their chance meeting into a grand collaboration, and have worked on several websites and digital projects together. Veronica particularly admires Julee’s technical skills and savvy, while Julee is always quick to point out Veronica’s impeccable design sense.

The newest iteration of the website features larger graphics, and easy navigation with drop-down menus. The page scrolls down to featured event and scholarship reports.
The newest iteration of the website features larger graphics, and easy navigation with drop-down menus. The page scrolls down to featured event and scholarship reports.

Needless to say, they are quite pleased with their latest effort for the Trust. Rather than an aesthetic overhaul, their new site is a complete reworking from a coding perspective. Matt’s request for a mobile-friendly site was finally a chance for Julee to completely redevelop things “under the hood” as she puts it, for it all to make sense, and Veronica was able to harness the recent advances in digital imaging and bandwidth of the past few years to showcase the Trust’s mission, scholarship, and programming in a graphically engaging way.

For Matt and Christian, who will also assume more of an active role in the website’s maintenance and updating, this was an education in how to leverage the site to better serve the Trust membership. The weekly design meetings throughout the first part of 2016 included new terminology: phrases like back-end editing, breadcrumb trails, pods, and responsive formatting. This technical jargon is part of a language used to describe how to make the site more intuitive for both long-time members and those who stumble across the Trust in cyberspace. Over 50% of those interacting with the website use a mobile device, be it a smartphone or a tablet. Thus, the new site is an essential move that will take the Trust’s web presence to the next level and encourage more engagement, as the site works equally well on both a computer screen and a mobile one.

Matt and Christian are incredibly grateful for the insight and hard work of Veronica and Julee, in addition to their long-time involvement with the Trust. We look forward to digitally reaching out the membership and a wider audience in the coming months, and look forward to exploring the website’s capabilities! If you have any feedback or recommendations for the website, please let us know.

The Allure of Ocean Liners: Decorative Arts Afloat

Outside of his work at the Decorative Arts Trust, Membership Coordinator Christian Roden writes and lectures on the topic of ocean liners. His first publication, “Henry Dreyfuss Designs the Postwar Ocean Liner” will appear in the upcoming issue of the Winterthur Portfolio. While his interests also encompass the technological, political, and economic influences exerted to run ocean liners in the 20th century, he can rarely resist the chance to talk about their fabulous interiors. The following blog is excerpted from two of his recent research projects.

People love ocean liners for many reasons. Some are drawn to the drama of the stories of the Titanic or Andrea Doria, or at least through the drama of blockbuster shipwreck films, such as the eponymous Titanic or The Poseidon Adventure. Others come to the subject through family or personal history. America being a nation of immigrants, vast swaths of the population don’t have to look too far back in their family tree to find a generation that was fresh off the boat. The majority of ocean liner enthusiasts, however, adore the topic because of the fantastic interiors and decorative arts found onboard these ships during their heyday. Much like the interiors of  contemporary buildings on land, these spaces reflected the aesthetics, social customs, and values of their era.  

Although the earliest true ocean liners date to the 1840s, they began coming into their own as technological and decorative marvels in the 1880s. At that point, their interior accommodations became a selling point for the companies, even though the vast majority of the passengers who sailed on these ships did so as immigrants in the sometimes appalling conditions of steerage class. Nevertheless, publicity focused on the luxuries of First Class, which embraced the fashionable trends of the era, including the many revival styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As with the great houses of the wealthy, a variety of time periods and cultures served as inspiration. Although Jacob van Falke was writing about land-based interiors, his observations that the wealthy man “dwells in the eighteenth century, he sleeps in that century likewise, but he dines in the sixteenth, then on occasion he smokes his cigar and enjoys his coffee in the Orient, while he takes his bath in Pompeii” holds true for the great early liners.

Despite their nods to the past, the liners proudly used the latest technology and products. Walls on the RMS Servia of 1883 proudly featured Lincrusta coverings, a linoleum-like composite of linseed oil and wood powder that could be applied like wallpaper, but possessed the three-dimensional qualities of wood or plaster moldings. Subsequent liners introduced features such as electric lights, elevators, hydraulic barber chairs, and swimming pools. Although fairly common on land, these features’ presence on board signaled an increasing focus on passenger comfort and an equal distancing from the dangerous and uncomfortable conditions that had plagued travelers for centuries.

As with most things related to the latest fashions, we have the French to thank for taking modernism to sea. As soon as the 1925 World’s Fair, also known as L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs ets Industriels Modenres, had closed down, officials from the French Line hired the best and brightest new decorators showcased there to furnish their latest ocean liner. Launched in 1927, the S.S. Ile de France was the first ship to use the Art Deco style, and for the line’s American clientele, was one of their first brushes with truly modern design. The late maritime historian John Maxtone-Graham probably said it best in describing her as “the great divide from which point on decorators reached forward rather than back.”

Take, for example, the first class staircase and tea room. Although technically rooms with two functions, they shared a space, and were united by the staircase’s four story open atrium (the first of its kind on-board of a ship, and now a popular feature on cruise ships). The custom furniture throughout the tea room, including the piano, was specially designed by the renowned French cabinetmaker Emile-Jaques Ruhlmann in the signature style he had introduced at the 1925 exposition, subtly reinforced to withstand not only the movement of the ship during storms, but also constant hard use from the 700 first class passengers who traveled on each voyage. The tea room complemented the first class entrance foyer designed by Richard Bouwens de Boijen, which featured decorative ironwork by Edgar Brandt.

Modernism in one form or another remained the preferred decorative trend through the 1950s. By then, the major national shipping companies of England, Germany, France, Italy, and the United States had produced vessels that competed to be the largest, fastest, and most luxurious liners on the North Atlantic routes. Newspapers of the day referred to them as “floating embassies,” and indeed many world leaders regularly used them not just to travel the world on state visits, but to conduct business with local officials whenever these vessels were docked in foreign ports.

Even smaller vessels, that could not be rightly termed “ships of state,” embraced these nationalistic tendencies. Two such vessels were the Independence and Constitution, the work of noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, and the subject of Christian’s article and master’s thesis. The theme of Dreyfuss’s work was “Modern American Living at Sea,” a subject made literal both by the names of the vessels and their interiors. Aesthetically based in the Mid-Century Modern style, passenger spaces in all three classes were named, however, after historic American figures or maritime traditions. The centerpieces of these vessels were the First Class lounges, named after their respective ships. The furniture, upholstery and curtains were all custom modern designs, but were designed to harmonize with specific historic references. At the forward end of each room a small alcove painted flag red emphasized a framed replica of the founding document associated with each ship: the Declaration of Independence on the Independence and the Constitution of the United States on the Constitution. Underneath, an antique console table supported by a large eagle highlighted the patriotism of the ship’s heritage. Against the aft wall, a reproduction pine breakfront housed a unique display of American decorative arts.


Dreyfuss, a big fan of museums, exerted his influence and charm to arrange for rotating loans of silver, pewter, glassware, and ceramics on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an arrangement that has never been subsequently replicated. Even the upholstery for the sofas and curtains used a printed linen featuring abstracted birds. Advertisements claimed these were inspired by Audubon prints, although to the casual observer this was a tenuous connection at best. Perhaps brash, and occasionally verging into the kitschy, these interiors paid homage to the ships’s “American-ness” that had been part of the company’s brand identity since the 1930s.

Although ocean liners remained a popular method of travel through the end of the 1960s, their legacy faces the same challenges many preservationists will find familiar. As commercial enterprises, they were typically scrapped once their useful life was over. With their furniture and fixtures scattered to the winds, appreciating their function not just as agents of cultural exchange, but as extremely important reasons for the creation, display, and use of the decorative arts becomes assumes increasing importance. Only five true ocean liners survive, three of which are museums. The preservation not just of artifacts, but of the documentation connected to these grand and culturally significant vessels, will be a challenge in years to come.